Podcast Episode 110

Transforming Lives Through Culinary Training: Dr. Rollie Wesen and The Jacques Pépin Foundation

Dr. Rollie Wesen | 55 Minutes | June 18, 2024

In today’s episode, we speak with our guest Dr. Rollie Wesen, Executive Director of The Jacques Pépin Foundation and an assistant professor at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, RI.

In 2016, Rollie founded The Jacques Pépin Foundation alongside his wife and father-in-law, Jacques Pépin. In the interview, Rollie shares how the foundation is dedicated to using community kitchens to train individuals who face high barriers to finding employment in the culinary world.

Listen as Rollie talks about how cooking is like learning a “foreign language” and how adults today can reclaim their lives with fundamental culinary skills.

Watch the podcast episode:

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Notes & Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. Today, I’m speaking with Dr. Rollie Wesen, the executive director of the Jacques Pépin Foundation and an assistant professor at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island.

With his wife Claudine and father-in-law Jacques, he co-founded the Jacques Pépin Foundation in 2016. Shortly after, he earned his doctorate in Education Leadership back in 2019.

The Jacques Pépin Foundation advances Jacques Pépin’s love of culinary arts and teaching through video recipe production and curriculum development, expanding education and training for all. The foundation supports culinary education for many communities through many channels with a particular focus on workforce development in community-based culinary training networks.

At Johnson & Wales, Chef Wesen teaches culinary labs and academics in the College of Food Innovation and Technology. He teaches at all levels offered and has developed courses and programs such as “Cultivating Local Food Systems,” “Conscious Cuisine,” and “Shaping the Future of Food,” with a particular focus on sustainability issues within the food system.

After 20 years of professional cooking experience, including stints at Michelin-starred restaurants in London and France, eight years in New York City, and as a banquet chef for Hyatt Hotels & Resorts, Chef Wesen joined the faculty at Johnson & Wales in 2011.

Stay tuned as we dive into his extensive career and the impactful work with the Jacques Pépin Foundation.

And there he is! What an intro! What an intro. I’m exhausted after that. That’s a career and a half. How are you?

Dr. Rollie Wesen: Thank you so much. I’m doing great. I’m doing great.

Kirk Bachmann: Really good to see you. I’m going to guess – we chatted a little bit – it looks like you are in a faculty area.

Dr. Rollie Wesen: Yeah. After I made full professor, I got an office, which I had never had before. That was exciting.

A Gala Affair

Kirk Bachmann: How about that! Congratulations! I love it. Thanks for taking some time.

We of course have lots of questions, lots of ground to cover. We’re going to talk about your love for food, your relationship with Jacques Pépin, but I wanted to kick off. I was doing so much research and came across so many videos and articles as I prepared to chat with you a little bit today. I read that on April 4, the Jacques Pépin Foundation brought together its seventh anniversary celebration. Wow! How did that happen? Seven years! In New York City. It read really incredible. Gail Simmons was there. Can you walk us through that evening and how important that was?

Dr. Rollie Wesen: Sure. Kirk, thanks so much for having me on. I’m really excited to be here and to share a little bit of what we’ve been doing.

At the Jacques Pépin Foundation, my role is executive director. I’m also the vice president. I also happen to be married to Claudine Pépin, so I am Jacques’s son-in-law, so I had a little bit of an in for the job. Basically, back in 2016, Jacques and Claudine and I decided to begin and incorporate the Jacques Pépin Foundation. Every year we’ve thrown an annual gala, which is our principal fundraising tool for the year. We’ve been settled into the first Thursday in April in New York City for the last several years. We’re going to try to stick with that, so if anybody is listening and interested in coming to the gala, you can mark that down – first Thursday of April in New York City.

This year was excellent. It’s always a great family reunion-style atmosphere. We have so many people that we love there and good friends of Jacques. Obviously, lots of people turn out just to see Jacques, but we have old friends of his like Andre Soltner and Jacques Torres. Daniel Boulud was there and Lidia Bastianich, and of course, as you mentioned, Gail Simmons was our keynote speaker this year. We had Giada De Laurentiis and Amanda Freitag. We also have a lot of organizations that we work with, so the James Beard Foundation. Clare Reichenbach, who is their executive director, was there. We had the Institute of Culinary Education – ICE – was represented. Johnson & Wales, our chancellor and our dean were there. Of course, industry sponsors like Atria Senior Living and Oceania Cruises. It’s always a really great event.

We get great chefs who volunteer their time to help us raise money to support culinary education for adults with barriers to employment. This year, we had Brooke Williamson and Antonia Lofaso came out from California and cooked for us. Really, really great event. It was wonderful and delicious and fun, and we raised a whole bunch of money to teach people how to cook.

Kirk Bachmann: That’s wonderful. What a line-up! What a line-up! This feels like this is going to be a really fun chat, so I’m going to dive right into some of the research that we’ve done. We’re going to talk a little bit about family.

It’s really interesting to me about what the Jacques Pépin Foundation offers the community. In fact, the more I read about it, the more speechless I became. I don’t know where you find the time, so thank you, first and foremost, to you and your family for all that work.

Before we get into the real details, I’d love to hear more about how did you and Claudine meet, and how did your daughter get involved with the foundation? I’m going to assume there was some hospitality background, or did you meet in a different setting? Are you okay going down that path? I love it.

Dr. Rollie Wesen: Sure, of course. Of course, Claudine and I met in a restaurant.

Kirk Bachmann: There you go.

Dr. Rollie Wesen: When we met, I was actually at my very first executive chef job. I was working and running a restaurant called Jacques Brasserie, just out of coincidence. Not that Jacques, a different Jacques.

Kirk Bachmann: Okay.

Dr. Rollie Wesen: On the Upper East Side in Manhattan on 85th Street. The restaurant is still there, a lovely little neighborhood bistro, brasserie place. Claudine was working in the wine industry. She was actually the brand ambassador for Moet & Chandon and Dom Perignon Champagne. I had a regular customer who was a big oenophile who loved his wines and always would bring in a group of guests and a long collection of wines and ask me to cook for them.

On one of those occasions, Claudine was one of the guests. I cooked a dinner that I was pretty proud of and came out to the table, and she said some nice things about the food, and that was the beginning.

A Tale of Two Terrines

Kirk Bachmann: It’s got to be a little intimidating, a little stressful, right?

Dr. Rollie Wesen: Oh yeah. For sure. Jacques is the OG. He is the GOAT, the original Greatest of All Time for good reason. He’s done it all and in so many ways. We love each other, and it’s comfortable to cook together. I’m comfortable cooking for him now, but it wasn’t easy at the beginning. It took us a little while.

I remember the very first time I made any food that I served to Jacques. It was Christmas Eve, and I had been working at the restaurant and had to hoof my way from New York up to Madison, Connecticut where he still lives. I just did the best I could to bring something that I thought would be hospitable and that I felt confident with. I brought an apple pie and terrine of foie gras. I got out of the car, and I had them in my hand.

He’s like, “You brought food to my house? What, are you crazy?”

I was like, “I guess I am crazy? Because I did bring food to your house.”

Funny story about, though. The foie gras that I brought – it was just him and Gloria and Claudine and I there for a couple of days. On Christmas Day, he was like, “Oh, what are we going to have for lunch? Oh, I think we’ll serve some foie gras. We’ll have a slice of Rollie’s terrine and we’ll have a slice of my terrine that I also made.”

I was like, “Oh my God! You must be kidding me!” There it was. He sliced them up. We had a salad, and we had a slice of my foie gras terrine sitting next to a slice of his foie gras terrine. It couldn’t be any worse than this right now.

I think I did a pretty good job. I felt good about it.

Kirk Bachmann: Did you hang in there?

Dr. Rollie Wesen: It was nicely seasoned, a little touch of cognac, nicely cooked, pressed well enough so it held together, a touch of pink. I felt pretty good about it.

A couple of days later, we were getting ready to leave and head back to New York. Jacques was like, “Here! Take some turkey. Take some mashed potatoes. Take some gravy.” He was unloading his fridge into a box for us to take back to New York. But he didn’t give us any of the foie gras. Zero of the foie gras. Just the two of them, and he’s got two full terrines in his fridge, mine and his, and he didn’t give us any of that.

I was like, “That’s suspicious.” I found out a couple of weeks later that Jacques was going around to all of his buddies with my foie gras terrine saying, “Look what Claudine’s boyfriend made for Christmas.” That was the beginning of a win.

The Language of Cooking

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. I bet that’s the story that comes up. I’d love to have Jacques on the show and ask him the same question and hear how he tells that story. I love it. That’s a gold star for you.
That’s a gold star. I love that.

You know what, we’ve got so many questions to address. Before we got started, we were talking a little bit about technique. If you could just indulge the audience a little bit, you said something just so important. You talked about how Jacques and other chefs make things look so easy, but even the simplest of techniques, like sauteing asparagus and making a little emulsion in the pan, requires skill and technique and understanding about what is happening in that pan. Could you run us through that story again, about the asparagus? It’s so simple, but really elegant, really beautiful.

Dr. Rollie Wesen: Sure. I think one of the things that someone who is just starting out learning how to cook or is beginning to really understand what it means to cook or people who consider themselves accomplished, but always follow the recipe. What I always try to teach here at Johnson & Wales, and certainly what Jacques always teaches, is that cooking is really about understanding the technique.

One of the things that I always say to my students is that learning to cook is like learning a language, learning a foreign language. When you learn how to handle an ingredient, then you’ve learned a new word in that language. When you learn how to execute a particular technique, then you’ve learned a new word in that language. As your vocabulary grows, as you can handle more and more ingredients and more and more techniques, you’re growing your vocabulary, you get better and better at doing things. Then you can start to put those things together in different ways, to create meanings in different ways. If anybody is literary-minded, I say, “Then you get to decide if you want to be Hemingway or Faulkner and have it be simple and straightforward, or whether you want to have lots of different things on the plate.”

When you watch Jacques cook, he does all of these things where he’s actually executing perfect technique, but he just makes it look so simple and easy. He was making butter-glazed asparagus. He cut the asparagus into small pieces raw, threw it into a saute pan, put three or four tablespoons of water in there, cranked up the heat, and put the lid on it just for two or three minutes. Essentially, what he was doing in that time that it was covered was steaming the asparagus until they were properly cooked. Took off the lid, there was still just a little bit of water left in the pan, threw in a couple of tablespoons of butter. Toss, toss, toss, and then that butter in that tossing is actually emulsifying into the water. You’re making, basically, a quick beurre blanc in those couple of seconds that the asparagus is tossing in the water and butter emulsion. You have perfectly cooked and butter-glazed asparagus.

The other way to do that is to very carefully blanch the asparagus, set it aside, make a beurre blanc on the side, spoon the beurre blanc over it. It can be much more complicated, but because he knows how to do all those things and knows how things work, it has this language of cooking, language of technique, he can just do it in a few seconds and make it look quite easy.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that story. He’s probably done it a thousand times, ten thousand times. It is muscle memory.

Dr. Rollie Wesen: The key is that it’s transferable. He’s done it a thousand times with a thousand different things. You can do it with baby turnips or string beans or peas or corn, whatever it is that you’re working with. The technique – which is not a recipe, it’s a technique – is transferable to other ingredients. As soon as you learn these basic techniques, you can do so many things. You can cook almost anything.

A Cooking Journey

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. I love that.

Chef, how did your love for this craft of cooking begin? Take us back?

Dr. Rollie Wesen: When I was growing up, both of my parents really loved gardening. My father had grown up on a dairy farm in northwest Washington State, Skagit County, beautiful dairy country, beautiful part of the world in the Pacific Northwest. My mother had grown up in New England, but always had a garden. When I was young, we had a huge vegetable garden in the backyard. We grew all kinds of things. We had tomatoes and string beans and zucchini and eggplant. We had ten different kinds of fruit on the property: raspberries, and blackberries, and peaches, and pears, and all kinds of stuff. I don’t know that I recognized it very clearly at the time, how special that was to have all of that fresh food in our backyard, but we always cooked together as a family.

Every day I’d set the table. My mom and I would cook together. She’d always cook from scratch. We had a pretty big family, so I give my mom full credit for being able to get dinner for ten out on the table. We weren’t ten, we were seven with my siblings, but being able to get a good amount of food out on the table in a short amount of time. I think there was a little bit of osmosis learning there.

Went to college and found myself with a group of friends who loved to cook. When I was at university, we had what we called Tuesday night dinners in our group house. Every Tuesday night we’d cook enough food for a bunch of people to come over, and people would just show up. It was actually a very good system. We would cook a lot, and then we would ask everybody who comes to bring a bottle of wine. We never had to buy wine for the apartment. We always had enough to drink because we made enough for everybody to eat every week.

After that, I took a pretty normal path to becoming an executive chef; I got a degree in literature and journalism and then needed a job because there wasn’t one.

Kirk Bachmann: So you just start to cook. Yes!

Dr. Rollie Wesen: So I started cooking professionally. I went to Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, and then started to cook there professionally in Pittsburgh. Then I realized that, really, what I wanted to do more than anything else was to travel. I realized that those skills, those professional cooking skills, I could take them on the road because there were restaurants and bakeries and bars in every city in the world. So I started to travel and just cooked along the way, and spent a couple of years going around the world, and then ended up in New York.

Kirk Bachmann: There’s probably a lot of journalism majors out there doing the same thing.

Dr. Rollie Wesen: For sure. I was writing the whole time, keeping journals, wanted to tell stories. The funny things was that after I decided that I wanted to be a chef, a lot of people said, “Well, aren’t you going to use your degree for anything?”

In retrospect, that’s just such a funny question. Being able to communicate well and to write well, and to write a business plan, and to be able to write a menu, and to be able to use social media and send emails, you need to be able to communicate really well as a chef. It’s a critical piece of your success. I was never disappointed that I learned how to write in college. Ultimately, it brought me back to academia. It brought me back to teaching and earning my Master’s Degree, and earning my Doctorate here at Johnson & Wales. Now, being a full professor.

Teaching and Learning

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. It makes me think a little bit, too, about the idea of twenty or thirty or maybe forty years ago, when someone would come to culinary school, they went to culinary school because that’s where knowledge was kept. Today, fast forward, there’s so much information on social media. People get their information from channels that they’re comfortable with. But this idea of being a storyteller, whether you write or narrate whatever it is, that’s exciting in the classroom. Be a facilitator. I always encourage our chef instructors here to just be facilitators of knowledge. Flip the classroom a little bit. Let the students talk. I love that. I love that. Maybe we should start offering journalism classes at our schools. It makes sense.

I want to come back. I keep tying things back to your relationship with Jacques if you’re okay with that. I’m sure there were many other examples of the foie gras or other dishes like that, where there was love behind the scenes and challenge up front. Chef, did Jacques Pépin become a mentor for you as well, at least in the kitchen? Father-in-law, obviously, beautiful relationship, but did he become your mentor in the kitchen as well?

Dr. Rollie Wesen: Sure. Wasn’t he yours, too?

Kirk Bachmann: His books are right there! I’m looking at them.

Dr. Rollie Wesen: That’s the thing. All of us who learned to cook, if you learned to cook in the ‘80s, ‘90s, 2000s, and maybe 2010, you probably learned something from Jacques. He’s been there the whole time. He’s published 35 books. He’s got another one coming out next year.

I said, “Really, Jacques? Because you didn’t get everything in the first 35, you’ve got to publish one more at the age of 88?” It’s just kind of incredible.

Our relationship has continued to grow over the years. Claudine and I have been married for 21 years now. Our daughter is twenty and at Boston University. Our relationship has continued to grow over all these years. We cook together more and more. But I actually think the thing that really binds Jacques and I together is our love of education because, for me, I’m always learning. I’m always curious, always trying to learn something new, try something new, try a new restaurant, buy an ingredient that I’ve never seen before just because I’ve never seen it before. I want to see what it can do.

Jacques really loves education. His story of education is very interesting. He arrived in the United States without even a high school diploma. Asked somebody literally on the boat when he was arriving in New York, “Are there any good schools in New York?” and somebody said, “Well, Columbia University is a good one.” He’s like, “Okay.’

So Jacques just trotted down to Columbia University and got his GED and then got his Bachelor of Science, and then went on to get his Masters. Then was working on his Ph. D. and spent seventeen years going to school at Columbia University. He’s just always curious, always looking for the next thing, always trying to learn more. Honestly, that’s one of the things that is beautiful about our profession; there is always more to learn. You can always learn something else. There’s always another ingredient. There’s always another skill. Somebody can always show you a new way.

Jacques and I were filleting salmon for a party for fifty people we were throwing last year, and somebody had shown me not too long ago – I’ve known it for a couple of years – but this technique where you can hold onto the salmon skin and you can take the fillet off just with the back of your hand, not using knife. I started doing that, and he’s like, “What are you doing? You’re not even using a knife; you’re just using your hand.”

I was like, “Yeah, check it out. You can just stick your hand in here and you can take that fillet right off.” He jumped right in, 87 years old, here he is. He’s learning how to fillet a salmon a new way.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh my gosh. I love that story. I love that story.

Congratulations on your daughter attending Boston University. I have four children. It’s just so great to see kids engage in education. What is she studying?

Dr. Rollie Wesen: She is studying public relations and advertising with a minor in psychology.

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I love it.

Dr. Rollie Wesen: She’s doing great.

A Win-Win-Win Strategy

Kirk Bachmann: Let’s talk a little bit about the foundation. 2016, you and Claudine started the Jacques Pépin Foundation. What was your original vision? As we fast forward several years, has that vision changed, evolved, pivoted? That sort of thing.

Dr. Rollie Wesen: Sure. When we first started the foundation…first, there’s a funny backstory there. Claudine was very nervous when she and I started talking about the idea of a foundation in her dad’s name. She was nervous. She said, “He’s never been pretentious. He’s never tried to shine a spotlight on himself. I’m not sure he’s going to like it. He may be resistant to the idea of us using his name for a foundation.” There was some trepidation.

Then when we finally went to Jacques and said, “We’re thinking of starting a foundation in your name,” the first thing that came out of his mouth was, “Well, it’s about time.” He’s always quick-witted, so that’s not surprising. I think he was pleased that we wanted to recognize him and preserve and protect and nurture his legacy.

Then once we got over that first hurdle, we were talking about it. “So Jacques, we’ve got a foundation in your name; what are we going to do with it? There are so many things that we could do with you in your name.” I sort of served him up a menu. I said, “We could teach kids in elementary school about food and food literacy. We could support culinary programs for junior high school or high school. We could support careers in technical education programs generally. We could offer scholarships for people to go to culinary schools if they wanted to get an advanced degree. We could invite graduates of higher ed in culinary to go and finish their training in Europe with an unlimited, unrestricted scholarship to continue their apprenticeship. We could teach people who just got out of jail how to cook.”

He said, “That’s the one. That’s the one I want to do. We should help people who want to learn how to cook, a way to reclaim their lives. If you learn how to cook, if you learn the techniques, you can get a job in a restaurant. You can maybe own your own restaurant. You can make a life if you love working with your hands, and you love helping people, and you love feeding people. That’s who we should be helping, people who are trying to reclaim their lives.”

Kirk Bachmann: Brilliant.

Dr. Rollie Wesen: And it was interesting, because at the time, I had been here in Providence. I was volunteering, working for the Rhode Island Community Food Bank. They had a training kitchen there, so I had been volunteering a few times, going and teaching classes there. I knew that there were these culinary training programs for low income people and people that had been homeless, or suffered with substance abuse. I said, “Jacques, let me tell you about this program that I’ve been volunteering for.” He said, “Well, that sounds great.”

I went out and I started looking and found out that there wasn’t just this one program; there were lots of programs like this. In fact, now at the Jacques Pépin Foundation, we support a network of over 120 of these community kitchens around the country, from Alaska to Miami to San Diego, to Vermont. They’re everywhere, all over the country. Basically, these community kitchens, they offer free life skills and culinary training to adults with barriers to employment. If you’re low income, or you’re previously incarcerated or suffered with homelessness or substance abuse, these programs are open to you. You can go in, and in twelve to sixteen weeks, you can get fundamental culinary skills that will help you get a job in food service. Basically, taking people from zero skill to entry level in food service in a very short amount of time.

But the beauty of it is it’s such an obvious and clear win-win-win. When somebody learns how to cook, they gain confidence. They gain a sense of purpose. They look more fondly on themselves. They learn how to feed their families. They learn how to save money because they can cook for themselves. Their health improves, and they can get a job. Through all of that, society gets a willing worker, somebody who was unemployed who is now employed. Food service, the industry that we love so much, that is so desperate for workers, is getting willing workers that want to be in the kitchen, that want to do the work. It’s just a really beautiful win-win-win. Very easy to understand.

Filling Vacancies with People who Want to Work

Kirk Bachmann: Just absolutely beautiful. Speaking of all of these individuals looking for work, I’ve watched several videos, as I’ve mentioned, and I was pretty alarmed by some of the statistics that were mentioned: 650,000 job vacancies in the culinary industry. Huge opportunity, right, for people to transition.

Dr. Rollie Wesen: That number is more like a million now, actually.

Kirk Bachmann: Now, yeah.

Dr. Rollie Wesen: There is something along the lines of seven million people who are disenfranchised from the workforce right at the moment. When you say disenfranchised from the workforce, that means you’re not even being counted as unemployed because your unemployment benefits, which only lasted for six months, ran out, and now you’re no longer even considered part of the workforce. A lot of these people want to work; they just don’t have the skills that they need in order to re-enter the workforce, which is why these programs make so much sense.

It’s interesting when we look at our network of community kitchens – over a hundred across the country – they all have slightly different approaches to their clientele. For example, the community kitchen in Pittsburgh: 99 percent of their student clients are previously incarcerated. They are basically looking for people who are just out of prison who are trying to reclaim their lives. Hot Bread Kitchen in New York City, another grantee of ours, all of their student clients are immigrant women. I think they speak something like thirty different languages, or they’ve had thirty different languages spoken in their programs.

Poverty and low education attainment are really the biggest ones, so a lot of our programs are associated with food banks. People who are going to food banks to alleviate their food insecurity may have the opportunity to not only get a fish but learn how to fish. Rather than just take the food home, to learn how to cook it.

Community Servings is one of my favorites in Boston in the Jamaica Plain area. Their primary program is to create thousands – literally 3000 – medically tailored meals on a daily basis that are delivered to house-bound patients, people who cannot get out of their homes. They are taking them food that is designed for whatever ails them. The program was originally designed for AIDS patients but now serves a whole wide variety of people who may have various chronic diseases. So if you’re gluten intolerant or lactose intolerant or a vegetarian, or you can’t eat this, you can’t eat that, they create meals that are specifically designed for you. What they found is they didn’t have enough people in the kitchen to do that work, so they started a culinary training program. Now they have local unemployed, previously incarcerated, previously homeless folks that are learning how to cook so they can actually make the food in these kitchens that are going to serve these house-bound patients. Just a beautiful synergy and cyclical process of helping people learn how to help others. It’s really beautiful.

How to Leave a Legacy

Kirk Bachmann: It really is. I think I know the answer to this question, but what is the best part of your job as the executive director? The sharing of the stories has got to be on the podium.

Dr. Rollie Wesen: For sure. The bottom line is it is easy to get out of bed in the morning when you’re doing great work. There is always so much to do, and I feel really good about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. I feel great about the fact that we’re protecting and securing Jacques legacy, and that we’re helping so many people in the process.

One of the backstories to the foundation is that for years, I had been hearing Jacques about the Julia Child Foundation and the James Beard Foundation. I think those names are probably familiar to everybody who is listening. It’s kind of fascinating because Craig Claiborne might not be a name that’s not familiar to everyone, but Craig Claiborne arguably had the biggest influence on all three of them for how Americans eat. Craig Claiborne was the first food critic for the “New York Times.” When he took over that job, it was an eighth of a page in the Home and Garden section. Twenty years later, it was a sixteen-page insert that came out every Wednesday in the “New York Times.” Literally, Craig Claiborne discovered chefs, he promoted restaurants, he gave us license and confidence to believe that there was great food made in America. He changed the way that Americans eat.

James Beard? He was a pretty good cook. He wrote a couple of cookbooks, and he threw dinner parties at his house. He was beloved by his community. But the James Beard Foundation is much more influential than James Beard ever would have been in his life. Craig Claiborne, who was incredibly influential, is completely forgotten.

Hearing these stories over and over from Jacques made me think, “I’m never going to let that happen to Jacques.” He’s so important, and he’s influenced so many people, and he’s had such an out-sized impact on our community, on our culinary community; I am never going to let him be forgotten. That is really the reason that we started the foundation. I feel great about the fact that we’re protecting Jacques legacy.

Then, by comparison to the Julia Child Foundation more than to the James Beard Foundation, we have a really important mission to improve lives and strengthen communities through culinary education. We’re really helping people improve themselves and improve their situation by teaching them how to cook. That just resonates so cleanly and beautifully with Jacques, [with] who he’s always been, always trying to empower people, always trying to inspire people, always trying to teach people.

All of those things together just make it a joy. Even when there’s a lot going on and we’re busy, there’s too much going on to get it all done, it’s easy to get out of bed and to do this great work.

We’re All Teachers

Kirk Bachmann: So well said. So well said.

I’d love to segue to the importance of up-skilling and chat, quite frankly, a little bit more about your background in education and your love for education. When did you realize that that was your calling – to be a teacher, to become a professor, to get advanced degrees and that sort of thing?

Dr. Rollie Wesen: We have a funny conversation in my family because I have four siblings, and basically all of us are teachers in some way or another. One of my sisters is a Master Gardener. One of my sisters is a surgeon who now teaches residents and mentors residents. One of my sisters was a police officer who was in the DARE program for years. It’s kind of funny that everybody in our family chose to go into teaching in some way or another. I think that goes back to our parents.

My father was a really lovely and wonderful, warm person. He just passed away a few months ago at the very ripe old age of 95. Had a great life. He was always curious, always looking for more knowledge, always trying to find the next thing. If there was a question about the definition of a word at the dinner table, he’d go and get the “Webster’s Dictionary” that was this big and bring it to the dining room table. We’d look it up and find the answer. I think that endless curiosity has always been in my blood and something that has been part of me. Critically important to culinary professionals and what chef’s are looking for when they’re looking to hire someone is someone who is excited to learn, who wants to learn the next thing, who is willing to work hard and [is] interested in learning.

And then I also think that patience is important. As you know, I’m sure. You’ve spent a lot of time in the classroom. Lots of people say there is no stupid question, but only half of them actually mean that there are no stupid questions. It’s really important to understand where the student is coming from, to take your time, and to help them solve the problem for themselves. It just felt very natural to me.

I would also say that anybody who has worked as a professional chef knows that teaching is important. You have to be able to communicate your vision. You have to be able to teach somebody how to do the thing that you want. If you say, “This is what is going to be the special tonight,” well, you have to teach somebody how to make the special for tonight. I think to be successful in a professional kitchen, you have to be a teacher. You have to be a mentor. You have to be able to communicate. You have to be able to inspire, and those skills just very naturally translate to teaching.

Educating to Make the World Better

Kirk Bachmann: We mentioned at the top of the show, chef, that you’ve developed coursework at Johnson & Wales around sustainability issues within the food system. At Escoffier, too, sustainability is a major component that is woven through our curriculum. Essential. Students explore the relationship between the chef and suppliers and how to use sustainable, organic foods in their menu production. But the importance of the sourcing of the food is really what I’d love to chat a little bit more about. From your perspective, why is it so important that culinarians today – students of the craft – understand this part of their training: sourcing of food, different methods of sourcing food?

Dr. Rollie Wesen: Sure. I’m super proud of our relatively new degree program here at Johnson & Wales. We have a Bachelor’s of Science in sustainable food systems. Actually just next week, we are going to graduate our very first cohort, so we’re four years into this new Bachelor’s of Science. What’s great about it – and there are a number of things that I’m very proud of – but one thing that we’ve known for a long time about chefs is that we have power. Part of what we try to teach in our sustainable food systems program is to teach these young culinarians that once they get out into food service, and particularly if they become hiring manager or purchasing manager, or a chef or an owner-operator, that they have power. They need to recognize that.

Many young people today want to do more for the world. They see the pressure of climate change. They see the craziness of politics. They understand that we live in a global community that doesn’t act like a global community, that is acting tribal. I think a lot of young people – at least more than I remember when I was twenty – actually want to change the world, want to have a positive impact. In the food system, in food service, you can really make a difference.

Going to your question that you particularly asked about purchasing: one of the things I express to all of my students, I teach all my students, to keep in mind that every dollar that you spend is a vote. We can talk about CAFOs – concentrated animal feeding operations. I can show you pictures of pens with ten thousand cows in them, or bird houses with fifty thousand chickens in them. If you’re uncomfortable with that industrial food system, then you need to understand that every time you buy a chicken or buy a piece of meat, you’re voting for either that system or a different system. If you don’t like that, then you need to vote over here. In a certain sense, there’s nothing wrong with the industrial food system – that is, it’s incredibly efficient. It provides relatively inexpensive food, probably the cheapest food of anywhere in the world, but it’s got some issues. There’s a lot of problems that are associated with it, and we work through all of the issues and get the students to understand that there are a lot of problems, and that their choices make a difference and that their dollars spent make a difference.

One of the things that really gets me now is that when we look at public health, and we recognize that five of the most fatal chronic diseases are diet-related. Five of the things that are killing people in our country are entirely preventable if we could just get people to eat better food. I think we’re at a very interesting inflection point in our food system where people don’t have time. and people don’t have access, and people can’t afford good, fresh food. It’s contingent upon us in the culinary community to help people access and to help people enjoy really good, whole, healthy, fresh foods because we’re leaders. We’re influencers. We’re taxpayers. We have the capacity to impact our communities in a lot of different ways. Teaching these values about sustainability and then helping young people to activate their power in order to have an influence, I think, is really important.

Kirk Bachmann: Are there any other prevalent trends or topics that interest you right now that you’re starting to weave into your teachings as well?

Dr. Rollie Wesen: In this degree program, one of the courses that I’m very proud of is called “Cultivating Local Food Systems.” It really links very nicely back to my nonprofit work, or my work in the nonprofit sector. In that course, we start out by introducing the students to the complexity of the food system. At a certain level, most people understand the food system as: farmer grows it, it gets harvested, it gets distributed, it gets packed, it gets processed, it ends up on a shelf, somebody buys it, and you eat it. That’s the linear throughput of the food system.

But there are so many other things involved in the food system, whether that is environmental sustainability or fishery sustainability, or climate change, or food insecurity, or food waste, or nutrition insecurity, or public health generally, or school lunches. There are so many things that are associated with the food system that really deserve our attention.

So when the students come into this course, we try to introduce them to all of these complexities of the food system, and then get them to focus on an issue that is really important to them. A student might choose meat minimalism because they don’t like the environmental impact of animal husbandry. Or they might choose food waste, or they might choose food literacy. They dive into that particular issue, do a deep dive. On their second project, they have to look at policy. How does government policy – state policy, federal policy – impact that particular issue? They do another deep dive. Then, I introduce them to an organization that does that same work.

I use my network of the Jacques Pépin Foundation. We have twenty or thirty host sites where a student can go to a food bank, or they can go to a food hub, or they can go to an incubator kitchen, or they can go to a school that focuses on food literacy. They can go and work on a farm. All different kinds of things; whatever interests them. Then they go, and they spend time. They are required to do twenty volunteer hours as part of my course with this organization. Then they come back at the end and they say, “This is the issue. These are the policies. These are the types of organizations that are where the rubber meets the road trying to fix this problem. I worked at this organization. This is what I saw. This is what’s working. This is what’s not working.” They come up with recommendations for how we can actually address this particular issue.

It’s so satisfying to see the kids come back at the end of the class with all of this information. They’re ready to go start their own companies! Today was the last class day, and the title of today’s lesson plan was “How to start your own nonprofit.” I walked them through it. These kids are ready to go. They’re ambitious. They’re entrepreneurial in spirit. They want to make a difference. We’re introducing them to the problems and then helping them see how to create solutions.

Up-Skilling is Continuous Learning

Kirk Bachmann: And that’s where the critical thinking comes in. I absolutely love that.

It’s a bit of a buzzword today, but this concept of up-skilling in our industry today is so important. We know that education doesn’t stop with the earning of a diploma or an associate’s degree, or even a bachelor’s degree. It’s important to stay up-to-date with the latest and the greatest. From what you’ve learned, from what you’ve witnessed in both the classroom and at the foundation, what do you believe are some of the most important soft skills that cooks or young culinarians or hospitality professionals need to know today?

Dr. Rollie Wesen: Sure. For starters, I would say that up-skilling is just a fancy buzzword for continuous learning. Continuous learning is absolutely essential. Like I was saying before, Jacques at 88 is still learning new skills and learning how to handle new ingredients. I think that’s critically important.

In part, it goes back to my educational background in literature and journalism that I always try to impress upon my students that having mastery of language is actually very, very important, more important than they know. Because as soon as you have to write a business plan or you’re trying to attract attention to your social media post, or you’re trying to communicate with a superior, or you’re trying to discipline someone who reports to you, having great communication skills is really important. I always tell my students, don’t overlook the academics. Don’t overlook the general ed courses in writing and math because you’re going to need them. You’re going to need them more than you think.

The other thing I always talk to my students about in my Conscious Cuisine class, we do a lot of whole-animal butchery. We’ll bring in a whole pig, and we’ll break it down, and we’ll make something out of the trotters. We’ll make head cheese. We’ll make sausages. We’ll make terrines. We’ll make chicharrons out of the skin – basically use the whole animal. There’s a few important skills for the students in that process. One is all those technical skills of how to do all those things. Not everybody knows how to make sausage. Not everybody knows how to make a terrine. Great to know how to do those things. But in addition, the math that’s involved. “Oh, I can buy this whole pig for $1.70 a pound.” “Yes, but can you use all of it for $1.70 a pound?” There’s math skills involved in there, making sure you’re getting the yield that you expect, and that you’re turning all of those primal pieces into the most money that you can bring back to your restaurant while using the off-cuts to make money in a different way.

There’s a lot of good learning in there, and all of those things would probably be considered up-skilling in that nomenclature, but I think of it as just being good at your job and knowing what to do.

Travel: Food for the Soul

Kirk Bachmann: Very well said.

I have to say, I don’t know where the time went. We talked a lot about the foundation, about education. By the way, you are a fantastic spokesperson for the Jacques Pépin Foundation. I can’t imagine what they would do without you. So articulate, so passionate, so humbly real. I really appreciate it.

I want to have some fun. On a light-hearted note, and talk about you. I’ve stalked you a little bit on LinkedIn, and I’m seeing mountaineering and snowboarding and just being in the great outdoors. Number one, where do you find the time? Number two, why aren’t you living in Colorado, because that’s where it’s happening? Talk to us a little bit about that passion and how you tapped into the great outdoors. I love it. I absolutely love it.

Dr. Rollie Wesen: We used to live in Colorado, and I was very happy there, by the way. Family was calling, so we had to come back to the East Coast.

It all starts from travel. I’ve always loved traveling when I was a kid. My parents would take us on four- and six-week camping trips and take us as far away from home as we could. We would camp out, sleep in tents, cook over an open fire. I just always loved that part of going camping. I took a lot away from that.

Then, like I said, travel has always been important to me. I took my first international trip when I was 18. I did a study abroad program in Turkey. I can still picture very clearly in my mind’s eye the view from the airport when the plane was landing, and thinking, “Whoa, this is going to be very different than anything I’ve experienced before.” I just loved that. I caught the travel bug at that point.

I always impressed that upon my students, too. Traveling is so important because you get to meet lots of different people. You get to experience different cultures. You get to experience different food. The more that you travel, the more that you come to understand that a smile means exactly the same thing in every language. Everybody smiles when they’re happy. Everyone laughs at a joke. Everyone enjoys sitting around a table and sharing food together. I think those are really universally human instincts. I think if we could all spend more time with people that are very different from us but sharing the things that make us human, the world would just be a much better and happier place.

In addition to that, I think as you progress in your career and particularly as you progress into management, having had a lot of world experience, experiencing different kinds of cultures, it helps you understand where people are coming from. When you’re trying to manage people as a sous chef or as a chef de cuisine, or as an executive chef, it’s really important to understand where people are coming from when you’re trying to get them to be loyal, and to work hard, and to do the things that you want them to do.

For me, traveling, I feel, meant more to me and my heart and my soul and to the way that I function in the world than it even seems like on paper. I feel like I draw on that everyday, and it helps me be who I am.

But I always love being outside. If it’s warm enough to sit outside. I always tell my wife, cold is just a matter of gear. “You want to sit outside?” She’s like, “No, it’s cold.” I’m like, “Just put on another jacket. We’re going to sit outside anyway. We’ll build a fire.” I just love being outside, riding my bike, snowboarding when I can. It’s all good.

Kirk Bachmann: I just love it. I love it. I’m totally stealing, “A smile means the same thing in every language.”

Dr. Rollie Wesen: Please do.

Stories of His Daughter

Kirk Bachmann: I have officially stolen that quote.

How about your daughter? Does she have the same passion for food and celebration that you and her mom do?

Dr. Rollie Wesen: She has a lot of passion for everything except food.

Kirk Bachmann: You know she’s going to listen to this, right?

Dr. Rollie Wesen: She loves to eat, and in fact, she doesn’t know how much she knows because she’s been surrounded by great food for her entire life. I think I have a picture of her sitting at the table at Paul Bocuse’s three-star Michelin in the South of France when she was eleven.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh my Lord!

Dr. Rollie Wesen: It was funny. At that point, she really didn’t like asparagus. We were talking to her about the menu, and she said, “I think I’m going to order the lamb.” Claudine said, “Sure. The lamb comes with asparagus, and we are not going to ask for a substitution here at Paul Bocuse. If you order the lamb, you’re going to get it as it’s written.” She said, “I know. I understand that.”

Then, a couple of minutes later, she said, “But you know, if I don’t like asparagus today – if I don’t like Paul Bocuse’s asparagus, I think it’s okay for me not to eat asparagus anymore. Ever.”

Kirk Bachmann: That’s a good point.

Dr. Rollie Wesen: She’s been exposed to great food for a long time. She’s very hospitable. She’s a very warm and charming young woman. I have great hopes and great expectations that she’s going to do some really important and fun stuff in her life.

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. She’s cooked with Grandpa a little bit and Daddy.

Dr. Rollie Wesen: Of course. They did a little series together when she was thirteen or maybe fourteen. “A Grandfather’s Lessons.” It didn’t get a lot of play, but it’s out there. If you go to our website – the foundation website, jp.foundation, we have hundreds of videos on that site that you can watch for free. They’re listed by series. You can go and watch episodes from “A Grandfather’s Lessons” with Shorey.

Dr. Rollie Wesen’s Ultimate Dish

Kirk Bachmann: Oh, I’ve seen. I’ve been all over that website. I absolutely love it.

You know, we call this show The Ultimate Dish, chef. So I can’t let you go – and I know you’ve probably got a lot on your mind. Maybe foie gras, but in your mind, what is the ultimate dish?

Dr. Rollie Wesen: The ultimate dish. One ultimate dish?

Kirk Bachmann: It could be one. I’ve had people tell me an entire nine courses. It could be a memory. You just mentioned Paul Bocuse, that’s not a bad memory right there.

Dr. Rollie Wesen: I have to say, probably like most chefs, I go through some phases. I’ll get hung up on an ingredient, and I’ll put it in everything for six months. I remember not too long ago, I was going through a sumac phase. I was like, “Sumac is so good!” It was in my dry rub, and it was in my curries. It was in everything.

I just love food. I love all kinds of food. We cook at home all the time. I really just appreciate lots of different things. At different times of the year, I get excited about different things. In the summer, I’ll cook a big batch of wild rice, and we’ll serve it warm one day, and then we’ll turn it into wild rice salad the next. Then the next day, we’ll add some cucumber and tomatoes to it and cycle through that.

In the winter, I love different kinds of stews and pot roasts. I was having a hankering for a hot pastrami sandwich the other day. We bought ourselves a beef brisket and rubbed it up and smoked it and made our own hot pastrami.

I love it all. I really can’t pick out a singular dish.

But I will say, actually, that very frequently, on Sunday night, we have a whole roasted chicken with a lot of vegetables in the pan and lots of roasted garlic and onions and carrots and parsnips and cauliflower, sometimes broccoli. We’ll load that pan up. Generally, I’m trying to eat more vegetables and less animal proteins.

Kirk Bachmann: That’s a good response. I think that’s the first seasonal response. Do you remember the first dish that Jacques Pépin ever made for you?

Dr. Rollie Wesen: First dish that he ever made for me? I’m not sure that I do remember the very – actually, the first dish he ever made for me was that Christmas Eve dinner. It was kind of classic. It was roasted turkey. He likes sausage and mushroom stuffing, which comes out almost more like a bread pudding than a traditional stuffing.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. That’s a good memory.

What Jacques Pépin does with Chicken Bones

Dr. Rollie Wesen: I do have some very memorable meals that Jacques has served. I remember, we did a party at his house where we had fifty people. We have this petanque league. Petanque is like the French version of bocce, so it’s slightly smaller balls, but the same basic principle. There are forty people in this league, and Jacques has had it going on for like thirty years now. In the summertime, there are like eight petanque tournament games. When there’s a tournament game, then everybody goes to this one house where it’s going to be hosted, and we all play petanque all day long. Then there’s a big sit-down dinner for fifty/sixty people at the end of the night.

Jacques and I were just working on the menu for Pépin Petanque hosting coming up here on Memorial Day weekend the other day.

So we threw this party for fifty people, and it was roasted chicken. At the end of the night, we had all of these chicken carcasses. There were like twenty chicken carcasses. Jacques is like, “Oh, I’ll take those.” So he gets ten of these chicken carcasses and puts them in a bag, and we take them home.

I was like, “Jacques, you going to make stock?”

He’s like, “Oh, no. I don’t think so.”

I was like, “Hmm. Okay.”

The next day for lunch, he just took these chicken carcasses, and he put them all on a sheet tray and seasoned them up a little bit more, put a little more olive oil on them. Put them in the oven and let them warm up, get a little bit crispy on the edge. He served us all a giant plate of green salad with greens that had been harvested from his garden, full of herbs. He walked around the table with a sheet tray full of roasted chicken carcasses, and just set a chicken carcass down in front of each person.

There were ten of us, and we had a plate of salad greens and chicken carcass. Everybody just washed their hands and got right in there and ate the whole thing.

I was like, “This is kind of incredible. Maybe the greatest chef of all time just served me a rewarmed chicken carcass, and he thinks it’s the best thing that he’s ever eaten.” And it was delicious.

Kirk Bachmann: And it was probably tasty.

Dr. Rollie Wesen: It was great.

Kirk Bachmann: A little salt.

Dr. Rollie Wesen: The vinaigrette was perfect. I love that contrast of the greens with the vinaigrette and the roasted chicken. It was great.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh my gosh.

Oh, chef, what a fun chat. Thank you so much for taking time with us.

Dr. Rollie Wesen: Thank you.

Kirk Bachmann: I so appreciate it. Future success in everything that you do. Say hello to Jacques. Keep on cooking. I hope we run into each other one day.

Dr. Rollie Wesen: Yeah, that would be great. I would love to get back out to Boulder. I lived in Denver for a little while. Colorado is one of my favorite places on the planet. Hopefully, I’ll get out there.

Kirk Bachmann: Well, if the JWU people are okay with it, you come out here. I’ll put you in front of students immediately.

Dr. Rollie Wesen: Absolutely. Why not?

Kirk Bachmann: Thank you again. All the best.

Dr. Rollie Wesen: All right Kirk, thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to have sat with you. Best of luck to you and your students, and I hope you have a lovely summer.

Kirk Bachmann: Thank you so much. All the best.

And thank you for listening to the Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. And if you can, please leave us a rating on Apple or Spotify, and subscribe to support our show. This helps us to reach more aspiring individuals ready to take the next step toward their dream careers. Thanks for listening.

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